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Harnessing Artificial Intelligence in Africa

05 September 2019

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Mr Matoko, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General (ADG/PAX) at TICAD7
© Soichiro Yasukawa

We have entered a new digital era, with the explosion of computing power, the multiplication of data volumes, the unprecedented capacity for learning through algorithms. This new era of artificial intelligence, is a technological revolution, but also an economic, social and of course ethical one, concerning all countries. At the Seventh Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD7), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and UNESCO co-hosted a panel discussion on African Artificial intelligence opportuntities and challenges, as well as UNESCO’s role in AI.

The AI experts from Africa, Japan and UNESCO offered an overview of the state of AI development and uses in Africa, provided an synopsis of UNESCO’s work in this domain, including on in the area of ethics, policy and capacity development, before diving into a particularly relevant topic of AI for disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Africa. The continent that has experienced the fastest rate of increase in the incidence of natural disasters over the past few decades. Ambassadors from many African countries, scholars, intellectuals, people from various organizations participated and listened to the opening remarks of Mr. Kenji Yamada, Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs and Mr. Firmin Matoko, Assistant Director-General for African and External Relations (ADG/PAX) of UNESCO .

Mr Yamada highlighted Japan’s “human-centred” approach, discussed opportunities, including for disaster risk reducation, and AI risks and underlined that Japan will continue to contribute to AI application and capacity-building in Africa, through close cooperation with UNESCO.

Mr Matoko, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General (ADG/PAX) highlighted that “Few domains escape the power of Artificial Intelligence. It is an important ally in the fight against hunger, poverty, inequalities, diseases or uncontrolled urbanization; but also in the safeguarding of the very rich African heritage, whether cultural or natural.”

Professor Osamu Sudo of the University of Tokyo led smoothly through a series of presentations and panel discussions: Ms. Dorothy Gordon, Specialist for Technology, Africa and Society and Chairperson of UNESCO’s Information For All Programme, discussed AI policies and data management in African countries, expressed appreciation for Japan’s Society 5.0 vision and highlighted the need for true African empowerment, including through investment by the private sector in AI research in Africa. Ms. Nnenna Nwakanma, Interim Policy Director, World Wide Web Foundation, stressed that data, especially, open government data, it the lifeblood of AI, but that high-quality relevant and timely data is not readily available and that few countries developed related policies.

Mr Cédric Wachholz, Chief of UNESCO’s ICTs in Education, Science and Culture section presented UNESCO’s AI work across its five sectors and particularly in the area of ethics and standard setting, capacity and policy development. He highlighted that “UNESCO’s global priorities are Africa and Gender” and that UNESCO’s work aims at “harnessing AI for the SDGs and to address AI inequalities, in terms of digital and knowledge divides within and between countries, as well as tackling the deliberate or accidental violation of human rights”. “The vision of a humanistic AI includes also an ethical approach, and to address the future learning and work”. Ms Yumiko Yokozeki, Director, International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa, discussed the role of teachers to advance the application of AI and to address specific disaster risks in Africa. Dr Masaru Kitsuregawa, Director General of Japan’s National Institute of Informatics, shared real AI for DRR application experiences and highlighted how Japan’s Acadameia can contributte to DRR in Affrica. Dr Katsumi Emura, NEC Fellow at NEC Cooperation, highligthed NEC’s biometric AI tools, showed how they are used in different African countries and encouraged future cooperation including NEC, to address real development needs.

Ms Shino, Director General for Cultural Affairs (MoFA, Japan) offered as Master of Ceremony opening and closing remarks to a very captive audience.